“To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” -Dumbledore

I am going to die. There have been times in my life when this fact scared me. Two unknown details of my demise still have the power to worry my weary mind: when and how. I don’t want to die young, before my children have grown and blossomed. I wouldn’t prefer a painful death. Other than that, the certainty of my finality no longer fills me with introspective angst.

Most humans are brought up with a pervasive faith in an afterlife. A common thread is found in the tapestry of life-after-death beliefs: retribution. How exactly that retribution will be paid varies widely. Some believe that a caste or species change is in order. Others are certain that a supernatural world awaits them on the other side. Regardless of the specifics, the idea of one’s actions being tallied and answered for is ever-present. While the rewards and punishments differ, religion in general tells us that this life is some sort of cosmic test. Pass and you shall be rewarded; fail and your situation could not be more dire.

Most people want reality to reflect karma. Thinking that the good among us will inherit the best of what the afterlife has to offer and that the villainous will get paid in kind appeals to our sense of order. Of course we want to believe that the wrongs of this life will be righted, even if we have to die to reach the final reckoning. With exceptions, humans act within the same basic ethical parameters. Yet, as self-deprecating as we can be, we are skilled at seeing the faults of others as greater than our own. I have heard the smug satisfaction of Christians as they tell atheists to fear Hell. Many may have a tiny twisted ball of fear in their stomachs asking if they will be among the damned, but I would venture that most are confident that they will gain admission into the pearly gates.
heavenArmed with the ‘knowledge’ that they will be saved from the inequalities of this world, something happens to believers. When this life is only an assessment, it loses a lot of its purpose. Sure, one must practice what has been learned. Never knowing when the final exam will take place adds a mix of urgency and tediousness. Still, there are plenty of other pupils in class to serve as distraction in the mean time. But, what’s the point? If we trust religion, existence is only a means to an end. Why look at the stars? Why fall in love? Why do anything other than study for the ultimate examination?

As an atheist, I have been asked what meaning my life can hold. As if immortality adds purpose rather than subtracting it. I have to assume that most theists have not truly pondered what an afterlife represents. Life goes on after someone dies. Marriage vows are ’till death do us part’ for a reason. Many of the afterlife myths I have come across state that even if you are among the rewarded and your friends and family are among the condemned, you will not be sad. What??

Allow me to state that if an afterlife does exist and I am saved but my children are not and I am not insane with grief, I am no longer myself. I have changed into someone else entirely, someone I have no desire to know or be. Ironically, if our actions are only part of a supernatural audit where success means dismissing the individual who actually took the test for an eternity spent as an intrinsically different person, the test is rendered useless. Think about it. We are our memories, thoughts, and experiences. If these are nothing more than a distant dream when we reach the afterlife then what was the point of having to earn it at all?

The fact that our life ends gives us all the meaning we could ever want. A day will come when I am not alive, not even remembered. If I don’t make these moments count, these right nows, then I will have wasted the only consciousness I will ever have. There is no need to cheapen this life with pretend second chances. Finding what and who we love and surrounding ourselves with those loves is a glorious way to spend this lifetime. This one lifetime.

deathIt is better that I die. You too. Looking into our society’s past, we see that social evolution depends upon the death of old ideas and those that hold them. ‘Passing on’ is nothing more than handing off the world to our children, to the next generation. With our final breaths, we are asking that they rid themselves of our prejudices and irrational thoughts. Little by little, person by person, our society changes. It could improve or worsen, but our fate would be sealed if we held immortality. Humanity cannot thrive unless we prune the branches of our family tree, including the limbs where we ourselves grow.

Most readers (and viewers) think that Dumbledore was referring to an afterlife. Perhaps that is what J.K. Rowling was referring to. That isn’t what I picture though. As Sagan said, we are all starstuff. Our dead and decaying bodies will still be starstuff. While I plan on turning my starstuff into a tree for a while, eventually the atoms that I call my own will scatter across the universe once more. I don’t know what my quarks or neurons will be in another millenia, but they will exist. My mind may not be along for the ride but everything that I am made of will continue to swirl among the stars. What could be more adventurous than that?

36 thoughts on ““To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” -Dumbledore

  1. Splendid post! Couldn’t agree with you more. To your point about how people act with an afterlife in mind, it reminded me of this passage in Scott Adams’ book, Gods Debris.

    “Very few people believe in God,” he replied.
    I didn’t see how he could deny the obvious. “Of course
    they do. Billions of people believe in God.”
    The old man leaned toward me, resting a blanketed
    elbow on the arm of his rocker.
    “Four billion people say they believe in God, but few
    genuinely believe. If people believed in God, they would
    live every minute of their lives in support of that belief. Rich
    people would give their wealth to the needy. Everyone
    would be frantic to determine which religion was the true
    one. No one could be comfortable in the thought that they
    might have picked the wrong religion and blundered into
    eternal damnation, or bad reincarnation, or some other
    unthinkable consequence. People would dedicate their lives
    to converting others to their religions.
    “A belief in God would demand one hundred percent
    obsessive devotion, influencing every waking moment of
    this brief life on earth. But your four billion so-called believers
    do not live their lives in that fashion, except for a few.
    The majority believe in the usefulness of their beliefs—an
    earthly and practical utility—but they do not believe in the
    underlying reality.”

  2. The afterlife doesn’t render this life any more merrier. It makes one worry they could not have merited the love of their chosen deity and are doomed for ever. It makes this life precarious and worrisome.
    And as Camus writes in the Rebel, if all are not saved then no one is.

  3. Muggle, this was one of your best posts. Hmmm, I’ve said that before. 😀 I’m serious, though. You are one of the best writers on WordPress.

    Having been on both sides of the fence, living life as an unbeliever has certainly had a very positive impact on me, and I appreciate life so much more. I am at peace with my mortality. I can say this because I came pretty close to death around the turn of the century. I wasn’t expected to live through the night. I find it interesting that a study posted in JAMA showed religious community support was not tied to a better quality of life near death. Quote from study:

    “Terminally ill patients who are well supported by religious communities access hospice care less and aggressive medical interventions more near death.” http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1685898

    You’d think they would be looking forward to going “home” to be with Jesus. Instead, they cling to life with every fiber of their being. The study also showed that those who had ‘high religious coping’ were less likely to have a living will. Oh, one more note, if heaven is all that, why on Earth would Jesus weep then bring Lazarus back? If I were Lazarus, I would have been pissed. 😉

    1. I’m grinning from ear to ear. Thanks for the compliment. It means a lot coming from a writer and person like you. 😀

      I think I came across that study at some point. The way believers behave near death is very telling. Their words often praise their deities but their actions cling to the ‘lesser’ life.

      Vance’s last post had me thinking about the religious funerals I have attended. Leaders use deaths to try to bring ‘lost sheep’ back into the flock, either gently or by intimidation. Most of the time, the life of the person is secondary to the dogma. Fear of death is never more clear than those moments.

      Never thought much about Lazarus’ point of view. Poor schmuck.

      1. LMAO — poor schmuck is right. You know…I can certainly understand why hope in an afterlife is important to many. I think about slaves, for example, how horrible their lives were/are. I think about those who are horribly impoverished, living in war zones, etc. What a horrible life.

        I saw the movie “The Help”, and there is a poignant scene where one of the women, who’s giving an interview for the book, in her home, looks over at her deceased son’s picture on the wall. He had apparently died a horrible death at the hands of racism. Next to his picture was a picture of Jesus. The way she looked at that picture really touched me. I could understand why she had hope in a heaven. She wanted to see her son again someday.

        I read Vance’s post, too. Such a beautiful post in honor of his grandmother. I was reminded of all the funerals I’ve sang at while I was a Christian. It is true, many if not most of the funerals had a message to the “lost sheep”. What a travesty. Funerals should be memorials, and a time to say goodbye, not places to ‘witness’. Quoting Vance, and couldn’t agree more

        “I began to take offense, almost, at what seemed a complete disregard for a life lived fully and completely, a life lost among endless talk of “final destinations.” It seemed almost as if, as long as she ended up in the right place, it didn’t matter where–or who–she’d been along the way.”

  4. I personally believe there is no right, or wrong way to embrace a belief. I also think that just like our existences, our demises are equally individualistic. Maybe we were all designed to experience different outcomes when we reach the end of our lives. The only thing for certain is that with every birth, there will be a death that follows. 😉 G-uno

    1. Perhaps you are right. I don’t think it likely, but I don’t claim to know anything with certainty and I don’t think anyone else should either. Given that uncertainty, let us all live as well as we can from birth to death. 🙂

  5. Your body’s constituents shall indeed “swirl among the stars” for eternity Madalyn, though I cannot help but think that there is no transmigrating soul hidden now amongst them; that same being true for all we apes of course. Whether consciousness retains its conditioning self-existence – that is how it perpetuates of course – must remain an open question I feel, not least of all as we do not yet understand what it is; indeed we cannot even agree upon its very existence. It may be all much stranger than we currently presume, and amongst the cutting-edge theories of consciousness, ideas akin to panpsychism are being treated perfectly seriously – see: Giulio Tononi and his Integrated Information Theory, amongst others. The idea here, as you may yourself have read, is that matter, which is information by another name, causes a form of subjectivity wherever the degree of information is integrated (Tononi’s ‘phi’). Now we come down to your particles drifting in the cold, starlit vacuum of future space. Perhaps each of them contains levels of integration to which the same theory must apply – who is to say that is not so? It seems fanciful, absurdly romantic even, yet science cannot dismiss the idea based on the extent of current knowledge. Just rambling here after enjoying immensely your quite beautifully written article.

  6. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who took a piece of leaven and worked it through all the dough. One strand of Christian belief on Heaven is that it is a way of being now, of living together, that we create here, of right relationships and fulfilled lives. That is the position of liberal Quakers

    1. I’ve only ever met a few Quakers. I’m not sure if they were liberal or not. As religions go, Quakerism seems pretty non-dogmatic and accepting. There is an emphasis on love, yes?

      1. There is an emphasis on peace, equality, simplicity, truth. God is Love. We are created in the image of God, and so loving, creative, powerful and beautiful. In the US Quakers vary widely, and are mostly Evangelical, but include Friends General Conference, more liberal. Here is the British Quakers’ guide to life. It is a few minutes’ read. “Who are the Quakers?” is my post today.

          1. What did you think of it?

            My post has not come up on the reader. It does that occasionally. Here it is.

            I was asked by Quakers how I would explain Quakers to non-Quakers. I have not otherwise tried this out on non-Quakers.

          2. I am encouraged by the aims it sets for a life well-lived: helping others, being open and understanding, living consciously, getting involved, spreading love, etc. I don’t personally feel the need for anything supernatural to be involved in those aims. Still, I can appreciate a religion that sets those aims for believers without setting them in opposition to those that think differently.

          3. My post shows a way for it not to be seen supernaturally, yet still be a special experience: a human mystery worthy of reverence. Many Quakers do see it supernaturally, and my friend is leaving, as she no longer does. That seems a shame to me: we observe the phenomenon, and the supernatural is only one way to explain it.

          4. I must admit, I’m a bit befuddled. If the belief stems from God being love, how can it not be supernatural? God is by definition supernatural. Are our definitions of God different?

          5. This week I came across the word “Ignostic”- one who holds the view that God is such a hazy concept, with so many contradictory understandings, that it is impossible to say if one believes it or not. God is Reality. I am happy being inconsistent: I use the term God without a specific understanding, as a concept with many facets, with different facets shimmering for me at different times.

          6. I am Christian because I was brought up Christian. I can count to five in Buddhist. Though we should not understand other religions in terms of Christianity: a Jew told me that Jews did not have theology in terms of working out a concept of God, like Christians do; “God is great, and that’s it”. Other religions are far more about practices than beliefs. So is my Quakerism.

          7. Interesting. If the Christian component is a vestige of how you were raised, why keep it? Do you disregard the parts of the Bible that go beyond a general message of love?

            It seems to me that your Quakerism is a step in the evolution of religion in general–theology morphing into a more basic spiritual framework that, given time, may drop the theology altogether. Am I off the mark?

          8. I treat the Bible like an old friend who sometimes says weird things. But which bits are about Love? Psalm 137, for example- by the Rivers of Babylon- that last verse about smashing children’s heads- they were enslaved, and they were Angry, more angry than I could be- so, God is with me in my anger. My anger is acceptable.

            Episcopalians like John Spong and Marcus Borg are evolving like that too.

            Bed time in the UK. Have a pleasant afternoon.

  7. I very much enjoyed Alan Rickman’s acting and roles as well Madalyn. It will be hard to imagine not seeing him in anymore future roles. 😦

    Death? Our mortality? Beyond?

    …but the next great adventure.” Indeed! Exciting, mysterious yet certain. It’s ironic that the more we live, live deeply connected to ourselves, family, loved ones, our home Earth, and our place in the Cosmos… the easier death becomes. One of my most comforting laws of fluid humanity regarding life’s and death’s coexistence, is the Law of Conservation of Energy. It states:

    “The principle that energy/mass cannot be created or destroyed, although it can be changed from one form to another; no violation of this principle has been found.”

    Every single human is made up of mass and energy, i.e. flesh and bone of coordinated elements of atomic, subatomic, and as of today “quarks” working in concert forever.

    Mmmm, “but the next great adventure” indeed!

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